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Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Computer sez no

From next week an application for a British passport will automatically fail if the photographs submitted depict the applicant smiling. Why? Because the technology used finds it very difficult to recognise smiling faces. In other words, the technology is significantly inferior to a human being in performing the task of passport controller. But we accept the new rules nevertheless.

Why? In part, no doubt, because as with so many other IT-fixes to complex public sector problems, handing millions to a labour-light company offering a technological fix allows politically connected cronies to concentrate vast amounts of public wealth that was held in common in a small-number of private pockets.

But more than that, where technology is concerned we have a collective blindness. We struggle to see the way in which technology*, rather than existing to serve our purposes, reshapes us in order to better fit its demands. And, of course, these demands do not spring from the machinery itself, but from the concerns and agendas of the designers and owners of these technologies, whether these concerns and agendas are consciously held or not.

Technology, particularly the new, shiny and computerised kind, offers us an apparently clinically clean division between our interactions with it, and our interactions with the designers and owners of this technology.

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Would we, for example, accept the level of surveillance involved in most CCTV schemes if, rather than cameras, we had the presence of the CCTV operators, viewers and reviewers present as we went about our business? If the police followed us down a street with a camcorder, would we not feel that our privacy was vastly more infringed?

Of course, the separation of people and their interests from the technologies deployed in their interests is not the only driver towards a future (and futuristic) society built on the order demanded by apparently (and only apparently) impersonal technologies. We also have the spectacle of terrorism thrust in front of the faces of any objectors. And, in some cases this is done is a ludicrously illogical, and damnably unchallenged, manner.

Yesterday Charles Clarke asked the EU to hold mobile phone records. Imagine that a record detailing every telephone call that you made were entered into a ledger by hand, listing who you telephoned, how long the call lasted and where you both were at the time of the call. Would you feel so comfortable? I would guess not. But I imagine that the disconnect between the technology of record collection and the very real existence of human record keepers and viewers prevents you seeing, at least without the application of imaginative effort, this scenario as analogous with that proposed by Clarke. More fool you. And me, as I am the victim of the same disconnect, which is why the slip towards technological authoritarianism will be so hard to avoid.

But back to Clarke’s bad argument. He spoke of hard-won freedoms, and among these listed the right to free-speech. He said that this was now under very real threat. He is, strictly speaking, correct. But he was implying that this threat was posed by terrorists, which is plainly nonsensical. Terrorists (to use the phrase so enjoyed by our ruling classes, fond as they are of drawing all manner of threats to their order, motivated by any and all kinds of ideologies, into a single, undeniably evil, category) might want to take away my freedom of speech. But what chance do they have? Could any of those people who seem to be arguing that we face an existential threat from terrorism – that the rules of the game have changed – please tell me in what sort of scenario ‘terrorists’ would be able to reduce my freedoms? Give me your stories, and we can all laugh out loud at their Melanie Phillips levels of anti-Muslim paranoia. Though you will hear a nervous warble in our chortles as we watch the same rhetorical devices being used that were deployed against the Jews.

No, the only people who can take away our freedoms are those with power. We all have the power to kill and terrorise our fellow human beings. It is not against these threats to our freedoms that human rights were devised. It is against the threats posed by the power of state (or quasi-state) actors that human rights are orientated. All those who glibly trot out the line; ‘the most fundamental human right is the right to life’, while justifying further roll-back of our freedoms should be put in a protective coma and placed in mechanised intensive-care behind the walls of a vault. That would satisfy their idiotically reductionist view of human freedom(s), and act as a further safeguard for the rest of ours too.

So, when you are told not to smile when you renew (or apply for your first) British passport, remember why that is. It is part of a process that encourages you to acquiesce to authoritarian (petty, in this case, perhaps) measures in the ‘neutral’ name of technology and with the persuasive force of a threat from the alien other. When you do for those passport mugshots, imagine that the demands for a particular expression are being made by policeman. And remember, just as in the policeman scenario, those demands are backed up by the force of the state.

*This goes for social technologies such as ‘the corporation’, for example, too.

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